Departures and Replacements: Are
Sociology Departments Downsizing in a
Period of State Budget Shortfalls?
A recent series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic
departments are downsizing as retirements accelerate and “hiring freezes abound.” A
major reason for downsizing is the decline in state higher education budgets. During the
mid to late 1990s, state higher education budgets grew. By FY 2000, the circumstances
changed and more state’s higher education budgets did not keep pace with inflation than
those that did. In 2003, state legislators passed the smallest increases in higher education
appropriations in more than a decade and, in 2004, state spending on higher education
declined for the first time in 11 years. State budget shortfalls and declining stock
portfolios have affected scholarly disciplines in both the humanities and the sciences,
including English, history, physics, and math. Interviews with department chairs suggest
that teaching loads are increasing, as specialties are being cut, and temporary faculty are
being hired to cover classes.
Are similar trends occurring in the social sciences and, especially, in sociology? Is
sociology facing a “retirement bubble”? Can we expect a downsizing of sociology
departments over the next decade as the largest cohort of full-time tenured sociologists
ages and retires? Will departments be able to replace them with new tenured or tenure
track full-time hires?
Many older sociologists earned their PhD degrees and assumed academic positions
during the steady periods of growth in sociology that lasted until 1976. After 1976, there
was a steady decline in the number of new PhDs, until 1990 when the numbers began to
slowly increase. In 2001 and 2002, the numbers of new PhDs declined slightly (these are
last years for which data are available from the National Science Foundation’s Division
of Science Resource Statistics). If sociology departments can replace retiring faculty,
new PhDs could face a favorable job market. Under a scenario of financial woes,
however, retiring PhDs might not be replaced, new PhDs could face a tighter job market,
and departments could shrink.
Aging in Sociology Compared to Other Social Sciences
Figure 1 shows an “inverted age pyramid’ among employed PhDs in sociology compared
to economics and political science. PhDs in sociology represent a smaller share of
employed PhDs under age 35, when they are compared to these other two social science
professions. Only 18.5 percent of employed PhDs in these three social science fields are
sociologists, compared to 51 percent of economists and 30.5 percent of political
scientists. The share of sociologists increases as they age. In fact, there are more
sociologists than economists in the 65-69 year old cohort. What do these findings
suggest for the departures and replacements among academic sociologists?
Percentage of PhDs of a Given Age within Age Cohort
90 2 1.4
3 0 .5 3 1. 8 2 8 .9 3 1.2 3 1. 3
3 5. 6 3 7. 2 3 3 .8
Political and Related
50 45.8 38.2 39.1 32.0
5 1. 0 48.1 35.1
30.5 29.6 32.1
10 18 . 5 2 1. 3 20.1
Under 35 35-39 40-44 45-49 50-54 55-59 60-64 65-69 70+
Figure 1: Em ployed Doctoral Social Scientists in Sociology, Political Science, and Econom ics w ithin Age Groups in 2001.
Source: National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2001.
Employment Status of Older Sociologists
One explanation of the inverted age pyramid is that older sociologists are not leaving full-
time employment and hence there are fewer to replace. Data from the ASA membership
database suggest that this explanation is probably not the case. Since 1999, the
percentage of ASA members over age 65 who report that they are employed full time has
decreased from 39 percent to 30 percent. Retirement is the reason for the loss of almost
half of department faculty, according to data from the American Sociological
Association’s publication, How Does Your Department Compare? A Peer Analysis from
the 2000-2001 Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology. In 2000-
2001, almost 46 percent of faculty left sociology programs as a result of retirement or
death; only about 4 percent left as a result of the failure to receive tenure, while half left
for “other” reasons (see Figure 2). This pattern is similar across sociology departments
located in different types of institutions. These findings suggest that there are potential
positions for new sociologists.
Percentage of Departing Faculty
40% Retirement or Death
30% Failure to Receive
20% Other Reasons
4.5% 5.0% 5.1% 4.2%
Research Doctoral Masters Baccalaureate All Programs
Figure 2: Reported Reasons For Sociology Faculty Loss, AY 2000-2001
Source: ASA, Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociolog y, 2000-2001.
Another explanation of the inverted age pyramid is that academic sociology programs,
the largest employers of sociologists, are downsizing, and younger sociologists are not
being hired to replace older ones. A third explanation is that relatively more new
economists and political scientists are being hired, although sociology departments are
As of Academic Year 2000-2001, sociology programs were not facing downsizing.
Instead, the mean number of full-time faculty per department increased slightly since the
previous year. Figure 3 shows that 1.5 full-time sociology faculty members were hired
over the year and 1.4 full-time faculty members departed. The numbers of full-time
faculty hired were greater than the numbers of faculty leaving, regardless of the
institutional location of the sociology program. In fact, there was no significant variation
in the replacement to departure ratio among types of departments, regardless of their
Not all new faculty hires were tenured or on the tenure-track, however. As Figure 4
shows, there was a slight decrease in tenured or tenure track faculty in sociology
departments or programs, on average. About 1.3 new sociology faculty members were
hired, compared to 1.4 tenured or tenure track faculty members who departed in AY
2000-2001. Sociology programs in institutions classified as “Baccalaureate” experienced
the greatest losses, while sociology departments located at “Doctoral” universities,
experienced some gains. These findings suggest that sociology programs did not
downsize in AY 2000-2001 but, instead, faced some restructuring from tenured faculty
toward full-time, non-tenure-track faculty. The possibility that economics and political
science experienced stronger growth than sociology is a possibility, but we cannot
determine if this is the case as a result of the lack of data on departures and replacements
in these academic disciplines.
All Programs 1.4
Number of Faculty Hired
Number of Faculty Leaving
Number of Faculty
0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18
Mean Number of Faculty
Figure 3. Number of Full-Time Faculty Hired in or Leaving Sociology Programs, 2000-2001
Source: ASA, Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology , 2000-2001.
Tenure-Track Faculty Hired
All Programs 1.4 Tenure-Track Faculty Leaving
6.1 Number of Tenure-Track Faculty
0.00 2.00 4.00 6.00 8.00 10.00 12.00 14.00 16.00 18.00
Mean Number of Tenure-Track Faculty
Figure 4. Number of Full-Time Tenure-Track Faculty Hired and Departed, 2001-2001
Source: ASA, Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology , 2000-2001.
What does the future hold for sociology departments and programs at different
institutional locations? Large-scale retirements can be expected. According to How
Does Your Department Compare? about 20 percent of the 2001 sociology faculty is
expected to retire by 2007 and about 32 percent by 2012. This finding suggests that
sociology departments and programs will be facing a retirement bubble. Some
departments have already faced this bubble. There is, however, significant variation by
type of institution, with the highest retirement rates expected in sociology departments at
doctoral institutions. These departments appear to be replacing departing faculty with
full-time faculty, although they may be experiencing fewer replacements than
departments of economics and political science. As of 2001, sociology programs did not
downsize, on average, but stayed the same. There appears to have been a small shift
from tenured to non-tenured faculty, especially at Baccalaureate institutions, over the
course of the year.
The next round of ASA survey data on baccalaureate and graduate programs will shed
light on whether restructuring continues, downsizing begins, or, growth occurs.
Prepared in March 2004 by Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director, and William Erskine, Research
Associate, American Sociological Association, Research Program on the Discipline and the
Suggestion citation: American Sociological Association. 2004. “Are Sociology
Departments Downsizing?” Data Brief (March). Retrieved from
How Does Your Department Compare? A Peer Analysis from the 2000-2001 Survey of
Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology can be ordered on the ASA website
at www.asanet.org/forms/pubord.html. It is publication number 624.R03.